A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2016

LEGEND jjj
 

2015, R, 131 mins.

 

Tom Hardy as Ronald Kray / Reginald Kray  /  Emily Browning as Frances Shea  /  Taron Egerton as Teddy Smith  /  David Thewlis as Leslie Payne  /  Colin Morgan as Frankie / Franck Shea  /  Christopher Eccleston as Leonard 'Nipper' Read  /  Paul Anderson as Albert Donoghue  /  Chazz Palminteri as Angelo Bruno  /  Aneurin Barnard as David Bailey  /  Millie Brady as Joan Collins  /  Charley Palmer Rothwell as Leslie Holt  /  Bob Cryer as Charles Kray Snr

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland

Not to be confused with the 1985 Ridley Scott fantasy film starring Tom Cruise of the same name, LEGEND is a new fact-based crime drama that explores twin brother gangsters that were the foremost leaders in organized crime in the East End of London during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  

Reggie and Ronnie Kray – “The Krays” – systematically engaged in multiple robberies, racketeering, assaults, and murder until their crime wave caught up with them in 1969, after which time they were locked up – one in prison, and the other in a mental institution – for most of the remainder of their lives.  Reggie was released on compassionate grounds due to suffering from cancer in 2000, whereas Reggie died while still in Broadmoor Hospital in 1995. 

LEGEND is a somewhat spot-on, but somewhat ill-focused chronicle of this pair of infamous UK criminals, directed with an assured and exquisite eye for period detail by Brain Helgeland (the Oscar nominated writer of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and MYSTIC RIVER and the director of 42, A KNIGHT’S TALE, and PAYBACK), but with a somewhat detached sense of an overwhelming sweep that covers the Krays' lives.  The more I watched the film the less I grew to understand what the Krays’ criminal reign in London was made up of, not to mention that there’s very little insight into the forces that allowed for the brothers to become such unstoppable titans of the underworld.  However, even when LEGEND feels unfinished and lacking in substantial story elements, the film is uniformly saved by the sheer presence – or should I say dual presence – of Tom Hardy, one of our most ferociously empowered and chameleon-like actors, who takes it upon himself to give into the unique acting challenge of playing twin brothers.  Every single moment Hardy occupies the screen – by himself or with himself – LEGEND pulsates with alluring intrigue.  It could easily be argued that Hardy’s volcanic stature here saves and otherwise problematic film. 

 

 

The film opens with introducing us to Reggie and Ronnie Kray and their mutual yearning to be powerful figures in London’s underground crime world, but the two men’s differing mindsets and ideologies always come to a head.  Reggie prefers to remain more guarded and inconspicuous, whereas Ronnie suffers from schizophrenia and is so mentally disturbed that only brotherly love and commitment would have allowed Reggie to let his sibling in on his corrupt plans.  What allowed for the brothers to become so powerful was the fact that they possessed dirt on the country’s leading politicians and law enforcement officials, but that didn’t stop a steadfastly determined Detective Leonard (Christopher Eccleston) from pursuing a case against them.  As the Krays slowly, but surely rise the ranks of the criminal underworld, Reggie finds himself falling in love and eventually marries Frances (Emily Browning, whose character somewhat awkwardly narrates the film), but as the lives of both brothers begin to dangerously spiral out of control, Frances finds herself dealing with nagging doubts about her marriage. 

Helgeland manages to transport us to London of yesteryear with fairly effortless strokes.  LEGEND is a film that consistently and wholeheartedly feels of its time and place, which always allows for it to have a persuasive authenticity.  Amidst the film’s solid production artifice lurks a few key scenes that really cuts to the heart of the Krays and their business empire.  One in particular occurs midway, during which time Reggie and Ronnie have a chance meeting with an American Mafioso (Chazz Palminteri) in hopes of striking up a lucrative cross-country partnership.  As the group shares a toast to celebrate their newfound business relationship, Ronnie makes a rather unabashed confession that he’s a homosexual and prefers the company of men, which the American don greets with enthusiasm, citing Ronnie’s courage in making such a claim.  Scenes like this cut to the core of who the Krays were: It simply didn’t matter that one was gay during a time when that lifestyle choice was shunned.  They were essentially unstoppable and highly dangerous men, so who would ever challenge Ronnie’s lifestyle choice anyway? 

LEGEND is ostensibly a performance showcase piece for Tom Hardy, and the actor hardly disappoints in the film.  There’s rarely a moment here – sans a few scenes where the somewhat shoddy effects work betrays him – when you doubt that Hardy is actually playing two different and distinct characters that occupy the same space on screen.  Hardy smoothly evokes Reggie’s slick, confident, smooth talking and laid back demeanor that can transition to barbaric hostility at the drop of a hat.  His Ronnie is a whole other story altogether: hot headed, quick to anger, deranged, and lacking in most basic social skills, Hardy shows this skitzo brother as an unpredictable ticking time bomb that’s always an unwanted threat to the entire Kray criminal mob empire.  Because Hardy is such a tour de force dynamo in just about any film he occupies, he more than sells the fact that Ronnie and Reggie and two polar opposite individuals – both physically and emotionally – that act as dramatically compelling foils to one another.  Watching Hardy sink his teeth into dual roles as only a method performer like him could is undoubtedly a mesmerizing trip to take.   

Still, there’s no doubt that the underlining material in the script is not up to par with Hardy’s exhilarating performance(s).  Too much of LEGEND feels like it’s cherry-picking the more sensationalistic elements of the Krays' lives and doesn’t seem too interested in the subtler psychological details.  We do come to understand Krays and their actions, but gain little foresight into why they perpetrated their crimes, which leaves the overall film lacking in historical and personal context.  Oftentimes, I was left wondering how two chaotic and unhinged people managed to successfully make their mark on the crime world as a whole in the first place without killing each other in the process.  The primary war between the brothers and the law – specifically Detective Leonard – seems underdeveloped, not to mention that a solid character actor like Eccelston seems like he’s not utilized to his fullest potential.  Then there’s the handling of Frances, and even though Emily Browning is convincing in the role, the screenplay de-values her as just another rudimentary and perfunctory mob wife cliché.  Considering the supremely tragic arc of her character, she certainly deserved more and better than what Helgeland provides for here. 

Nevertheless, I find myself in a rare position of recommending - with some strong reservations - a film based solely on the strength of its lead actor.  Granted, without Hardy’s very presence in LEGEND would I have been compelled to see it in the first place?  Probably not, even though I have great respect for Helgeland as a filmmaker.  There are times when the film feels like a Martin Scorsese-light approach to potentially strong mobster material, and the screenplay here certainly doesn’t have the all-encompassing focus it should have had (especially considering its two-plus hour runtime).  Still, Hardy’s immeasurable on-screen talent is on full bravura force in LEGEND, and he single-handedly takes a pedestrian film and turns it into a fairly thrilling one.  

In tackling the lives of criminals during their reign of terror, LEGEND is an undercooked effort.  As a show-stopping exhibition of one of the finest actors working in contemporary cinema, the film is bloody good. 

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